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Continuity, change and learning from Robert Maxwell

Paul Finch
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Paul Finch pays tribute to architect and academic Bob Maxwell, who passed away this month

Robert Maxwell, who has died in France, aged 97, outlived his student contemporaries, Colin Rowe and James Stirling. Their influence on him was profound, as can be gathered in his excellent collection of essays on history and theory, Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless (1993).

Published by Princeton, where Bob taught for 25 years, including seven years as dean, the book is a reminder of the sometimes difficult relationship between architecture and academia. As a practising architect – he was a partner at the office of Douglas Stephen – he did not, in his words, receive the training to be either a historian or a scholar.

However, that is what he became, and his conversations and lectures were always illuminating and quite often provocative. For a long period he was part of a small advisory group connected to the Royal Academy architecture programme, which also included Charles Jencks, Richard MacCormac and other RAs. I enjoyed our meetings and the post-discussion drink in the pub down the road, and sometimes felt we should have recorded them. Their spontaneity and informality sometimes made the formal events they prompted seem rather stuffy.

His analogies to make a point were always good value, as I was reminded when reading the introductory essay to that 1993 book. He made it clear that he had never accepted either Capitalism or Socialism as complete answers to the problems of society, regarding the positive elements in their conservative and progressive programmes as akin to the brakes and accelerator on a car. The question was where this left the idea of steering.

Maxwell.marseille.2016.2

Maxwell.marseille.2016.2

In thinking about apparent opposites, and conscious of his upbringing in pre-Second World War Northern Ireland, the Maxwell synthesis, based on the thinking of the philosopher Georg Simmel, involved understanding the extent to which they were dependent on each other. In particular, he was concerned with the extent to which life dealt with this question:

‘It is composed on the one hand of traditions, rituals, settled ways of doing things; everything that falls under the heading: it worked before, why not now. On the other hand there are all the forces of change, from the impact of science and technology through to the work of innovative people, thinkers, inventors, artists and philosophers. The forces of tradition and the forces of change are in constant opposition, but also in a state of rough balance, allowing some picture of the future to be projected at any time.

‘Yet, retrospectively, it will have been seen that everything is actually changing all the time. Everyone places himself, herself in relation to this incipient change, some welcoming it and identifying with the new, others resisting the new and identifying with some aspect of tradition. All belong to the same moment in time.

‘In Simmel’s view this process is continuous and inexorable, and every moment in the evolution of cultural consciousness is a sort of treaty, or temporary compromise between the new and old.

‘Life is a constant struggle between new contents and old ones, but change is only visible because of the changes in the forms that accompany it. Forms, then, are the means by which contents are made visible. They are both unavoidable and indispensable, yet must be struggled with if change is to be manifest.’

This proposition is, of course, entirely applicable to architecture, but also to the world beyond. Nobody knows what the outcome of Brexit will be, but what we can say is that our future political history will have consequences for architecture and architecture will inevitably reflect change. It will not itself, however, be changed utterly, any more than will be the UK.

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